Editor’s note: This homily was preached on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 13, 2022 (Extraordinary Form), at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
Today we find ourselves involved in another calendar quandary. In the revised calendar, if the Epiphany is not a holy day of obligation in a particular territory, it is (foolishly) transferred to a Sunday, with the feast of the Lord’s Baptism occurring on the following Sunday. In the pre-Vatican II calendar, the Epiphany is always celebrated on January 6, with the Baptism of the Lord commemorated on January 13. Interestingly, in either dispensation, the Baptism concludes an “octave” of the Epiphany and closes out Christmastide. With that bit of trivia in place, let’s venture forth to reflect on the significance of Baptism – our baptism.
My first experience of witnessing a baptism took place when I was in the third grade. I attended a large parish grammar school in Newark, New Jersey, in a neighborhood which was just beginning to attract blacks, most of whom were not Catholic. However, a good number of them recognized our schools as superior and asked to have their children admitted. In the third grade, one of our classmates and his entire family were received into the Church. Ronald was baptized during the school day so that all of us classmates of his could attend. Immediately after the water was poured over his forehead, he blurted out in his still-fresh-from-the-South accent, “Ah feel bettah ahlready!”
Naturally, such a response brought out explosive laughter from all of us kids. And also, naturally, Sister Vera explained to us back in the classroom that although Ronald’s acclamation was a little out of place, he surely did have the right idea.
The baptism of Jesus, which we recall today, is given to us as an opportunity to reflect on our own baptism which, in most cases, took place many years ago and was also probably done for us by our parents and godparents. What did baptism do for you?
If you were baptized as an infant, the Church made a powerful statement of God’s love for you by bringing you into a relationship of love with God long before you could even begin to return that love. Original sin was removed, and you were accepted into the family of God, which is His Church. That first and most basic sacrament made you a Christian, a little Christ – called to share in Christ’s three-fold mission as priest, prophet and king.
Some people have the mistaken notion that the very fact that at some past moment they were baptized provides an automatic guarantee of salvation. St. Peter’s caution should make us pause as we hear Peter remind his hearers that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). Being a Jew or a Gentile means nothing in itself; just as being a Moslem or a Christian in itself means nothing. What matters is that a person “fear God and act uprightly.” In other words, if we wish to claim that we belong to the company of the saved, we must act like saved people.
How does one act “saved”? By doing God’s will in one’s life, by living as a member of the community of the Church – faithful to one’s baptismal promises – by worshiping God with the entire Christian community, by performing works of mercy, by “healing those in the grip of the Devil,” that is, by challenging our pagan culture through the faithful witness of our lives to conform to the ways of Christ and His Gospel.
Sixty years ago, that classmate of mine asserted that he “felt better already.” I have often wondered how he has lived out that first profession of faith in the power of the Sacrament he had just received.
By living out our baptism to the full and wholeheartedly, salvation becomes a real and daily experience, bringing peace and fulfillment in this life and the assurance that we will hear at the end of our lives, the same message Jesus heard from the Father at the outset of His public ministry: “You are my beloved son or daughter. On you my favor rests.”
When Pope John Paul II made his first pastoral visit to France in 1980, he addressed the nation as “France, eldest daughter of the Church.” Undoubtedly, that historic title for the first country to embrace the Catholic Faith made many Frenchmen swell with pride. He then finished the sentence, “What have you done with your baptism?” Many French heads sank into their chests as the Pope not too subtly reminded them of the massive abandonment of Christian values in that country. That same question could be asked of most of the formerly Christian West, including our own nation. Indeed, people of Holy Innocents Parish, what have you done with your baptism?
One of the first theological conflicts engaged in by the young Anglican clergyman, John Henry Newman, was precisely on the meaning and effects of the Sacrament of Baptism. A sect had arisen at the Protestant Reformation that condemned infant baptism as ineffectual; from that heresy, sprang yet another that called for Baptism but saw in it nothing more than a godly ceremony. And so, we hear Newman teach his congregation:
If, indeed, there be any who degrade Baptism into a mere ceremony, which has in it no spiritual promise, let such men look to it for themselves. . . . But for me, my brethren, I would put it before you as a true and plain pledge, without reserve, of God’s grace given to the souls of those who receive it; not a mere form, but a real means and instrument of blessing verily and indeed received; and, as being such, I warn you to remember what a talent has been committed to you. There are very many persons who do not think of Baptism in this religious point of view; who are in no sense in the habit of blessing God for it, and praying Him for His further grace to profit by the privileges given them in it; who, when even they pray for grace, do not ground their hope of being heard and answered, on the promise of blessing in Baptism made to them; above all, who do not fear to sin after Baptism. This is of course an omission; in many cases it is a sin. Let us set ourselves right in this respect. Nothing will remind us more forcibly both of our advantages and of our duties; for from the very nature of our minds outward signs are especially calculated (if rightly used) to strike, to affect, to subdue, to change them.
Blessed is he who makes the most of the privileges given him, who takes them for a light to his feet and a lanthorn to his path. We have had the Sign of the Cross set on us in infancy,—shall we ever forget it? It is our profession. We had the water poured on us,—it was like the blood on the door-posts, when the destroying Angel passed over. Let us fear to sin after grace given, lest a worse thing come upon us. Let us aim at learning these two great truths:—that we can do nothing good without God’s grace, yet that we can sin against that grace; and thus that the great gift may be made the cause, on the one hand, of our gaining eternal life, and the occasion to us, on the other, of eternal misery.1
The technical, theological word for what Newman was describing is “baptismal regeneration,” making of us “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). Which is why the Church puts such immense store by this Holy Sacrament; indeed, the Catechism refers to it as the vitae spiritualis ianua (the gateway to the spiritual life) – the source of all grace, present and future. Do you know the date of your baptism? You should. Mine is easy to remember as I was baptized but a few hours after my birth.
It’s very important to remember one’s anniversary of baptism. The Church has given an opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence if one renews his baptismal promises on that day. A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who renew their baptismal promises on any occasion. With that in view, I am inviting you to stand now and renew your baptismal promises, making a firm commitment to live in total fidelity to them as a grateful response to the grace first given you on that life-changing day of your baptism.
The Renewal of Baptismal Promises
Dear brethren, through the Paschal Mystery we have been buried with Christ in Baptism, so that we may walk with him in newness of life.
And so, on this feast of the Lord’s Baptism, let us renew the promises of Holy Baptism, by which we once renounced Satan and his works and promised to serve God in the holy Catholic Church.
And so I ask you:
Priest: Do you renounce Satan?
All: I do.
Priest: And all his works?
All: I do.
Priest: And all his empty show?
All: I do.
Priest: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?
All: I do.
Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death and was buried, rose again from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Father?
All: I do.
Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
All: I do.
And may almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and bestowed on us forgiveness of our sins, keep us by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord, for eternal life. Amen.
1PPS 7-16, “Infant Baptism,” 15 June 1828.
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